A blue canvas self-portrait by Pop Art king Andy Warhol fetched a record $38.4 million in a tense two-way bidding war at Christie's in New York Wednesday.
The 1963-1964 work, which shows Warhol wearing sunglasses in four panels, was the star of a brisk contemporary art sale that saw the auction power house leave arch-rival Sotheby's in its tracks.
Total sales hit $301.7 million, just over the high pre-sale total estimate of $299 million, and far above the $128 million netted at Sotheby's in its own contemporary art sale on Tuesday.
Christie's said the Warhol set a record for a self-portrait by the still hugely lucrative artist, who died in 1987.
Pre-sale estimates for the work ranged between $20-30 million, but bidding burst those barriers in a dramatic contest between a phone bidder and a bidder present in the Manhattan auction room.
Bids shot up in increments of half a million dollars, then a quarter of a million and then, as the competitors dug in, by just $100,000 a time, drawing laughter from the well-heeled crowd. As the struggle limped on, passing the $30 million mark, Christie's auctioneer quipped: "Longest lot in history."
When the phone bidder finally prevailed, applause erupted.
Another Warhol self-portrait, this time showing the wild-haired artist in diabolical red against a dark background, sold for $27.5 million, a hefty but relatively disappointing performance that fell below the $30 million low pre-sale estimate.
Other big sellers included an untitled oil by Mark Rothko, selling for $33.7 million, well above the $22 million high pre-sale estimate.
"Three Studies for Self-Portrait" by Francis Bacon sold for $25.3 million.
The evening sale had a buzz distinctly lacking on Tuesday at rival Sotheby's contemporary art auction.
There, Andy Warhol canvas "Sixteen Jackies" sold for $20.4 million, at the low end of the pre-sale estimate.
Jeff Koons' "Pink Panther," a porcelain sculpture of a topless blonde hugging the famous cartoon character, sold for $16.8 million. That was far below the estimate of $20-30 million.
Warhols also dominated the Sotheby's top sellers, with "Shadow - Red" selling for 4.8 million, far above the estimate of $700-900,000 and "Round Jackie" fetching $3.7 million, compared to the pre-sale estimate of $3-4 million.
Christie's had a much smoother ride, hitting the biggest haul for an evening sale since May 2008.
Of 65 lots offered, 95 percent sold, with 38 lots selling for more than $1 million, five for more than $10 million and four for over $20 million.
The previous record for a self-portrait by Warhol, $32.6 million, dated to May 2010.
Brett Gorvy, international co-head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie's, said it was "one of the best sales we've ever had."
"After last night there was a certain degree of caution," he said. "Ultimately to see a sale so successful... is just indicative of a market that is really pursuing quality."